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Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas Defends DHS's Work At The Border To Congress

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas appeared before Congress for the first time today, testifying during the middle of a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. He defended his agency before a House committee and told lawmakers the Biden administration is sending a message to migrants who want to cross the border.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS: If you are speaking of individuals who are seeking to come to the southwest border, the message is do not come.

CHANG: This hearing comes before the first votes in Congress on immigration. To tell us more, we are joined now by NPR congressional reporter Claudia Grisales.

Hey, Claudia.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So there's this huge surge of migrants at the southwest border right now. And I understand that Mayorkas himself said, at this rate, it could be the biggest in two decades. Can you just tell us more about how he characterized this flood of people trying to get into the U.S. right now?

GRISALES: Yes. He told a House committee that his agency is taking steps to address this flood of individuals at the southwest border. He called it a difficult situation but stopped short of calling it a crisis. When he was pressed on this, he said it was the Trump administration that had a border crisis on its hands. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAYORKAS: A crisis is when a nation is willing to rip a 9-year-old child out of the hands of his or her parent and separate that family to deter future migration.

GRISALES: He also rejected criticism from Republicans who said there's no plan. And he said several plans are in place, and the agency is executing on all fronts.

CHANG: Well, what are lawmakers saying about how Mayorkas and the Biden administration are handling this issue right now?

GRISALES: You could see quite a divide along party lines. House Democrats are highlighting how this new administration will need time to turn around what they saw as failures on immigration under the Trump administration, while Republicans were using the hearing to bash Biden's policies. Here's Texas Congressman Michael McCaul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL MCCAUL: This administration's actions have had a direct cause and effect on this humanitarian and border crisis.

GRISALES: They were also quick to note that Mayorkas was evasive in his answers and that he wasn't laying out a lot of specifics for the path ahead. They also warn that the agencies handling the situation will run out of money. But we should note, there is a political calculation here. Republicans are eager to change the subject from a COVID relief bill Democrats just signed into law last week. And this is a key issue for the GOP.

CHANG: I was wondering, I mean, the Biden administration unveiled its immigration reform bill on the president's first day in office, but the Democratically controlled House is taking up two smaller pieces of it. Why is that?

GRISALES: It's a signal where Democrats admit - they even admit they don't have the votes for a bigger bill. So they're taking it up in this piecemeal fashion. The bills that they are going to vote on tomorrow will give DREAMers and farmers a path to legal residency in the country and were part of legislation that's won bipartisan support in the past, including with a 2013 bipartisan bill that was run by the so-called Senate Gang of Eight. Republicans and Democrats had put that together, but ultimately, they failed to get traction on it.

CHANG: Right. OK. Well, what about the Senate this time around?

GRISALES: So Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, who's a major figure in all this, says the current surge makes it difficult to move this larger bill right now. I talked to New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez, who's sponsoring this larger bill. Let's take a listen.

BOB MENENDEZ: All of the options on the table. If we think that getting there through different segments can make it happen, great. We're looking at reconciliation as a vehicle, as a possibility for some, if not all of it.

GRISALES: So this is a workaround for Republican opposition, and we'll see if they'll try and use it again.

CHANG: That is NPR's Claudia Grisales.

Thank you, Claudia.

GRISALES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.